International Women’s Day: Five Female Industry Leaders Reflect

Whilst we’ve made great strides in a historically male-dominated industry, we still have a way to go to reach gender equality. For this year’s International Women’s Day, we spoke to five female industry leaders to take a deep dive into issues facing women in the architecture sector and what steps we can take to improve.


Moderator - Tiffany Montañez, Associate, SB Architects

Happy International Women’s Day everyone. We’re kicking it off strong with an industry discussion, not only check-in on what we’re doing at SB Architects, but to continue that conversation with our peers. As women in the building industry, what do you find to be the biggest barriers that women are facing?


Anne Wilkinson – Principal, BAMO

I would say that the main barrier is that, structurally and historically, there are more male leaders. For example, at industry events, they will tend to socialize together, and it can be hard and a little daunting to break into that group. Our office is in a fortunate position, in that one of our founders is a woman. We have a diverse group of people in our San Francisco office, it’s a community. The challenge is the inherent historic and structural situation where men heavily dominate positions of leadership, and it’s difficult for women to break into that bubble and be taken seriously.


Astrid Hoffmann – Principal, EDSA

You’re right, Anne. Many professions – across all industries, are still male-dominated. From my personal experience, I’ve noticed that men are generally not afraid to jump into a conversation and express their opinion during meetings or brainstorming sessions. Women, on the other hand, tend to plan and carefully cultivate our responses – if we don’t feel prepared, we may not go for it. For example, if I’m in a meeting where ideas are quickly flying, I might wait until the end to say my piece and get my point across thoughtfully, and I worry that in some cases, it can come across as not being as prepared or as tough. However, things are slowly changing. My firm was originally founded and led by men, but in recent years, our team has become over 50 percent women. We are evolving and have many women leaders, which is great. Our current team, specifically those of the younger generation, is eager to continue breaking those barriers.


Pinar Harris - Vice President & Principal, SB Architects

I agree, I feel like, as women, we have to work harder to prove ourselves to be worthy of leadership positions. Like Astrid said, sometimes women prefer to listen, assess, and answer thoughtfully, as opposed to just filling the space. When your voice isn’t heard, it can take a while to convince yourself that you are worthy and belong in a position of leadership. 

I also agree with Anne’s experience of attending industry events, it can sometimes feel like the guys all group together – they have shared experiences, and almost, their own language – which, as a woman, it can be hard to break into those conversations. We have to find other ways to be a voice in the room, or at the table, to be considered for leadership positions.


Diana Yankee – Construction Manager, Kast Construction

I think that it’s also a pipeline problem, there are not enough women, especially in construction, that enter the field. When I was fresh out of college, (I graduated almost 30-years ago), only 10% of my graduating class in Building Construction, were women, and 20 years later, that number was still the same, and, I’m pretty sure that if I went and asked today, it would be the same. I think, at least from the construction side of things, part of the challenge is letting women know what a great job this is. You can make an entire career for yourself, it’s a great opportunity to build things and do some truly wonderful work. 


Anomien Smith – Creative Director, Luxury Frontiers

What I’ve found is that a woman’s management style is completely different from a man’s. The moment you’re slightly assertive in your manner, you’re earmarked as someone aggressive, someone who overreacts. We need to be sensitive and softer to get our ideas across, you can’t just act naturally, as your male counterparts, otherwise, you run the risk of not being heard at all.


AW: I think that’s so true. Our Director of Operations is a woman, she’s amazing, but she’s very matter-of-fact and quite blunt, so we joke that she needs to break out her pearls and soften her touch when she deals with clients or anyone outside of the office. 

TM: As a segue, I think that most of the panelists here can agree that having more women in leadership is a positive thing. I think the question is, how are we focusing on mentorship? How are we making sure that the current female staff in our organizations are being encouraged and empowered to achieve leadership positions?  

PH: It’s a case of leading by example, and making time for one-on-one conversations. Whenever I sit down to talk with any of the younger female staff, I always encourage them to speak up in meetings and discussions. I want to hear their voices. The more they push themselves to step out of their comfort zones and voice their opinions, the more confident they will become.  If you don’t, if you decide to let others speak instead, then no one will fully understand your input. The unfortunate truth is that men are much more willing to speak up. that doesn’t mean that they’re any better, just more confident in their interactions. I think, as a female leader, I need to set an example by speaking up and making my voice heard so that the younger team has a strong mentor to follow in the footsteps of and join the conversation. 

AW: I read somewhere that mentorship is helping somebody succeed in their current role and sponsorship is how you help somebody advance to the next role. Although men are willing and able to mentor, younger women need to be able to envision themselves in a leadership position and to do that, they need to receive encouragement from female leaders and see them thriving. It’s important to encourage everyone in your office, but women in particular, because we typically have a self-confidence gap with men.

Men tend to have an easier time believing what they’re saying, and, I think as women, we tend to question what we’re saying, leaving the door open for other viewpoints or opinions to be heard, rather than stating our opinions strong and clear. Sometimes, having the ability to listen to other people’s opinions can make you seem like you’re not set on your viewpoint, when, in reality, it’s because we know that a sense of collaboration can help make a project/idea stronger. 

AH: Mentorship from a young age is very important. As you said Pinar, enabling younger staff to participate, present their ideas, and have the opportunity to be in the room is key. It makes me proud to see very smart young women today, who can state their opinions strongly and confidently, as I wasn’t that person when I was younger, I was always the person who waited to the side. Women are strong in a constructive way because we bring all the things that we’ve learned as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, partners, and so on. We have an inherent ability to multitask, which isn’t typically found in men. As a leader, I try my best to encourage and create an inclusive environment that allows for expression. 

DY: I think part of the value of women in leadership is in a more general inclusion way. The more diverse the leadership team – different backgrounds, different histories, viewpoints – the better the decisions. It opens opportunities for the next generation, as they can blatantly see that you don’t need to look or be a certain way to be a leader. A leader is whoever you are and want to be.

AW: I agree Diana. And I think you’ve hit on something, having diverse voices and a diverse leadership group has been proven to be much more effective. There was an interesting study completed that essentially put blinders on companies that were looking for job applicants. It was fascinating, with no information besides experience, no names, gender, race, etc. they decided to hire a very diverse group of people. I think it’s a fact that when we see people, hear people hear their names, we make assumptions, and we have unconscious biases that can oftentimes lead us to choose someone like us. When you take the preconceived notions away, you simply look at the work and the facts about someone’s work experience, leading to a potentially more diverse selection. 

“I think, as women, we have an inherent empathy and psychological understanding of others. So, as a leader, it’s important to use that skill to see where the person’s strengths lie, what that person can bring to the table, and how to help nurture that – how to make that person feel comfortable enough to slowly move out into the world. It’s important for us, as leaders, to help those that aren’t loud to feel comfortable to enjoy what they do, and ultimately be recognized.”

Astrid Hoffman – Principal, EDSA

TM: Bringing up the topic of sponsorship versus mentorship. I think our industry is rooted in apprenticeships, and now we’ve moved into the world of mentorship. It’s crucial to have the ability to learn from whoever is in your realm, whether that’s Project Managers, Project Architects, etc. What are the different learning resources available for the next generation? And how are you working towards providing those resources and implementing them for your younger and intermediate staff? 

AH: We never stop learning. On one side, we guide and mentor others, but those of us in leadership are also learning from the younger staff. At our firm, everyone is encouraged to have ideas and express them. I love it when we do a design charette and an intern has an idea. It is so welcome because it enriches our work and the project as a whole. As Anne mentioned, it makes a group more diverse in ideas and collaboration. In addition, we have a mentorship program in place for new hires that join our firm, and we also offer diversity scholarships for students – these initiatives help everyone grow.

As a collective, we must always take advantage of the opportunity we have to spread our voices both internally and externally, educating people about our profession, and, what it’s like to be a woman in our fields of practice. Maybe there’s a young woman somewhere, in a small town, who listens and thinks ‘Woah, I want to work in construction, or ‘I’d love to join a big, cool design firm’. The more we can sponsor and mentor, the richer our professions will be. 

AW: I like that notion of listening to ideas and, you know, good ideas can come from anyone, at any level, at any time. In the discovery stages especially, you need to listen to everyone’s thoughts. We’re currently working towards putting some structures in place to expand on those ideas. As an interior design firm, we’re majority women, so we’re lucky in that respect. 

DY: As a construction firm, we’re not majority women. There are very few female Project Engineers, so I don’t think a program for women would particularly work at the moment. One of the things I like that someone has just said is the idea of encouraging everyone to talk, whilst being cognizant that some women tend to be more reticent and reluctant to talk. The more we’re aware and know how to work with the different traits people hold, the more we can work with them to encourage them to speak. This isn’t just a problem unique to women, but it does fall heavier. For example, I have a male Project Engineer working for me who’s quiet and doesn’t necessarily get the recognition he deserves for his work because of that. I think encouraging everyone who is more reluctant to voice their opinions, to speak up, will help them become more active in their organization. The more we can get everyone involved, the more value we can get out of their work because we will start hearing their incredible, insightful ideas. 

AH: Following on from Diana, I feel that’s what women’s leadership can bring. I think we have an inherent empathy and psychological understanding of others. So, as a leader, it’s important to use that skill to see where the person’s strengths lie, what that person can bring to the table, and how to help nurture that – how to make that person feel comfortable enough to slowly move out into the world. It’s important for us as leaders to help those that aren’t loud to feel comfortable to enjoy what they do, and ultimately be recognized. 

PH: At SB Architects, we don’t have a formal mentorship program, but when a new team member joins, they’re paired up with a seasoned project and project manager with a personality that matches/meshes. This way, we can provide one-on-one feedback and mentorship to that person. On the first day, the mentor would typically take the person for lunch, introduce them to the team, and then continue to be their touchpoint to help navigate the first few months. It evolves organically from there, as they will begin working on different projects, with different people, with different skillsets. For me, I always try to lead by example and encourage people, as Diana said. Even in a five-minute, short conversation, I always try to check in, see what’s going on, how they’re doing. I try to provide as much feedback professionally and project-wise as I can, looking forward and providing guidance for next year, year-after, two-years’ time, etc.  

TM: To add to that, more recently we’ve switched the way we do reviews. Instead of it just being your manager who you’re directly speaking with, we’ve switched it to what’s being called a ‘360-review’, where you have your peers, who you work alongside on a day-to-day basis provide feedback. This way, you end up with a well-rounded understanding, of not only your performance but your collaboration skills. It’s helpful to have participation from all levels, not just leadership, it promotes a great culture in the office and provides more ownership and agency for staff. 

AS: I want to follow on from what Astrid said about having the ability to see and understand when a person is naturally quiet, whilst seeing their other skills and encouraging them to voice their opinions and show their talent to the world. In our team, we’re fortunate to have more younger women than men. What we’ve found with development, is that women come to us with different courses or development they want to complete, and we encourage that. If they’re interested in courses, whether that’s focused on Rhino, or learning how to complete pivot tables in Excel, we encourage that, so that people know it’s an open door and we’re willing to help. It’s a great culture we have. 

TM: Moving onto the next question, what advice would you give to young women aspiring to a similar career?  

AW: Be assertive, stand up for yourself, ask for what you want, and believe in yourself. I think too often we assume that assignments are given based on pure experience, but the reality is, you have a much better chance of getting what you want if you ask for it, and you’re willing to step up and take the challenge. 

DY: The advice that I would give to the younger me is two things, first, construction is awesome, and this is a wonderful field. I had no idea I wanted to do this when I was in high school, I didn’t even know that it was an option, so I’m grateful that I fell into this career by accident. Second, our industry, in general, is very small. I’ve been building in Miami for 30 years now, and I run into the same people repeatedly. I didn’t realize that the relationships you make and the work you do every day matters because you never know at what point in your future you’re going to run into that person again. It’s important that you do good work every day – the work I did when I was in my twenties, still matters today! Women-specific advice would be that it’s important to be cognizant of the biases that people have and to feel comfortable with your style, even knowing that it might be different than somebody else’s. The more research we can complete about the different biases and tendencies of others, the more we will be able to approach situations from an informed viewpoint. 

AH: I would say, never change your way. Don’t sell yourself short, be yourself, never abandon your dreams, and trust your word and your intuition, because that’s something that we carry strongly as women. 

PH: What I would have told my younger self is to be more confident. It took me a long time to realize the power I have. I think if I came to that realization earlier, I would be further ahead than I am now. It took me a while to get here and get the confidence I have today.  

I would tell myself to keep putting in the hard work, this is a field, and you must learn to maintain a belief in yourself, your growth, and your development. Learn to trust your ability and talent and become comfortable in your skin. 

“We need to see more diversity at the head table, as this will make the bottom-line work for everybody, rather than a certain set of people, which up to now, has mainly been men. There has been a surge of women taking on leadership roles, but we still have a way to go. We need to make sure we have women in ‘decision maker’ roles and strive to maintain an equal seat at the right tables to effect change and make an impact in the field.”

Pinar Harris – Vice President & Principal, SB Architects

TM: Zooming out into our overall industry. From development to construction to design, where do we see our areas of improvement? Not only for women but JEDI overall? What are the opportunities that we hope to see in the next year, five years, 10 years, in our industry? 

PH: We need to see more diversity at the head table, as this will make the bottom-line work for everybody, rather than a certain set of people, which up to now, has mainly been men. The decisions made at a high-level, tend to skew towards men, as they are the ones having the final say. The more we hear female voices across the board, and the more women are asked to review and provide feedback, the better it will be, not only for our industry but society. 

There has been a surge of women taking on leadership roles, but we still have a way to go. We need to make sure we have women in ‘decision maker’ roles and strive to maintain an equal seat at the right tables to effect change and make an impact in the field. Women are currently achieving this goal, and it is evolving one meeting at a time, one day at a time. 

AW: I think you’re right Pinar, I think the more that our voices can be heard, the more they’ll get used to hearing them. Part of the challenge is understanding that there are fewer opportunities and there are different voices and different leadership styles that may work better in certain situations. If you open up to hearing those voices, creating a more inclusive circle at the top, the more benefits we will see.  

AH: I agree too. I think these talks help to open the discussion across our industries. It would be interesting to include men in the next conversation as I would love to hear their viewpoint. The more comfortable we become with diverse thinking through cultures, people, opinions, genders, etc., the more possibilities we will have as designers. We work in a creative world, and to be creative, you can’t limit yourself. We need to stop, listen, and learn from everybody. Different viewpoints and open, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue, enriches. 

DY: There has been a significant change, that I’ve witnessed over the last 10 years in the number of women who are employed in the trades. We’re working as electricians, painters, finishers, tilers… and I think that started as a result of the recession when trades started coming back. There was a lot of work, and therefore a lot of opportunities for women to move into that work. It’s a significant change, and I hope that will continue. The potential downside is, that historically, as women move into a new industry, the wages tend to go down. I hope that, as more women get into the construction industry, it doesn’t follow that trend.

One of the nice things about being a woman in a male-dominated field is that I tend to make more money than women in women-dominated fields. I think part of that, is that women are becoming more aware of their worth and more willing to speak out for what they’re worth. Historically, women-dominated fields have been lower paid because typically women are less comfortable asking for a wage increase or asking for fair compensation. I think, as more women enter leadership positions, they can help to make sure that those wages are equitable, regardless of someone’s gender or background. 

PH: Adding to what Diana has said, I think that’s one of the important reasons there should be more women in leadership positions making decisions. I truly believe that, as women, we are fairer than men when it comes to compensation disparity. Personally, when I see something that doesn’t feel quite right, I’m vocal about it, I believe everyone should be paid fairly, whether they feel comfortable enough to speak up and ask for it, or not.

AS: Exactly, I’ve always been vocal about our salary matrix and ensuring that it’s right. It used to be that if you didn’t ask for it, you didn’t get it, if you did ask, you did. As you said, as women, we tend to be the voice of reason and fairness. 

TM: I want to thank you all for taking the time to have this conversation. It’s very clear that even though we are within different disciplines, we all have similar experiences and have a similar attitude on what’s next, which is very exciting.  

Moderator: Tiffany Montañez – Associate, SB Architects 


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